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Who's Horrible in History - Terry Deary

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Illustrator: Martin Brown / Paperback: 80 pages / Publisher: Scholastic / Published: 1 Sep 2011

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      09.01.2013 20:38
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      Makes history fun

      In this book Terry Deary promises to introduce us to "Fifty of the Foulest People of all time." It is a kind of Who's Who of Horrible History from Manic Monarchs and Potty Priests to Rotten Rebels and Crazy Criminals (Yes, there's lots of Annoying Alliteration here as usual!) and the information is presented in Deary's trademark irreverent style. Yet amongst the silliness, there is plenty of opportunity to ponder more serious questions.

      According to Terry Deary's introduction, kind and caring folk are 'boring' and what we all want to read about is horrible people - "people who help an old lady to cross the road....but leave her in the path of a big, bruising bus." It's all very tongue-in-cheek and designed to appeal to the sense of humour of 10 year olds, but I'm not sure it's right to suggest that only the 'bad guys' of history are worth reading about. Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale and Mahatma Gandhi, for example, are not boring, in my view. It can't be denied, however, that information that shocks and is a bit on the gruesome side appeals to many children and Deary's style certainly makes children more likely to remember the things they read about.

      Unlike the regular Horrible History books, which are smaller and with black and white illustrations, this book is more in the style of a magazine. It is big and glossy with colourful pages and plentiful illustrations. I love the way the information is scattered over the pages with text boxes that look like yellow post-it notes and clippings to provide additional snippets of information. This design means that the reader's eye is drawn to different things on the pages and they have a choice over the order in which they choose to read the information. This encourages a relaxed approach to learning and is particularly suitable for reluctant readers with poor attention spans. Even if you don't read everything on the 2-page spread on a specific character, there is likely to be one Foul Fact or one picture that draws your attention.

      I have to mention the fabulous index to this book. I would not normally pay much attention to an index but this is a Horrible History index, designed to let you find the most gruesome topics with ease. For example, if you look up the word 'corpses' in the index, you can choose from 'armless,' 'in brandy' and 'chopped up' amongst other things. Under 'heads' you can choose from 'bitten off', 'crushed', 'on poles' or other charming things. Learning to use an index to research topics of interest is a valuable skill for children and this index is certainly fun to use.

      As you would expect from Terry Deary, the book's information is presented imaginatively and in a variety of ways, including comic strips, diary entries, newspaper reports and police files. It is a good way to show children the range of writing styles that are available to them to present information and to make comparisons between these styles. For example, they can observe how a newspaper report is narrated by one person, whereas in the comic strips we can see what different characters are thinking and get more than one point of view. The comic strips are good fun for children to read with friends. They can each take a different part, reading from the speech bubbles and even act out some of the events.

      This book is not for the squeamish. It goes into a lot of grisly detail, even by the usual standards of a Horrible History. For example, you can discover which monarch was killed while sitting on the toilet. I won't reveal the unpleasant details except to say his death put the 'ass' into 'assassination.' You can find out which Spanish prince took a mummified corpse to bed with him and why. You can also learn how a bad bout of piles may have contributed to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and discover what happened to Oliver Cromwell's head after he died.

      One of the things I like about this book is there is a good balance between the more well-known characters from history and those you may not have heard of. I was particularly intrigued by the story of Elizabeth Bathory, 'The Blood Countess of Transylvania' who killed over 600 women in the early 1600s so that she could bathe in their blood.

      Although a lot of the subject matter is vile, there is plenty of humour to be found in this book. Martin Brown's expressive illustrations complement Deary's flippant text perfectly. The cartoons are wonderful. In one of my favourites we see two Roman grave diggers going about their work. One says to the other, "Murders, rebellions, executions, gladiators, suicides, assassinations......I love this town." I was also thrilled to see the inclusion of a particularly awful poem by William McGonagall, written to commemorate a failed plot to kill Queen Victoria.

      Another great comic touch is the way the newspapers reporting historical events are made to resemble our modern tabloids. For example, in the French Times which reports the death of King Charles VI, there is also a reference to - "I'm a Celebrity Get me Jousting Gear." Similarly, the Roman Express offers a chance to "win tickets to Saturday's Big Game - The Venice Christians v The Roman Lions." This helps children to develop a healthy appreciation for satire.

      For all its humour and focus on gore, it is quite a thought-provoking book. It encourages children to think about the many different reasons why this motley crew of characters from history were so horrible. Were they just born horrible? Were they mad, bad or a combination of both? Can you be horrible per se or does something make you like that? These are all interesting questions which could lead to many discussions - and not just limited to history. Deary shows how horrible people are often driven by such things as greed, revenge, religion and fear and oppression.

      Another thing I like about this book is that readers are encouraged not to blindly accept what history tells them about a particular character without question. For instance, we consider the case of Richard III and whether his evil image owes more to Shakespeare's play (Tudor propaganda) than what really happened. In the section called 'Kruel for Killers' we learn about some of the famous murderers in history who may in fact be innocent.

      My daughter was interested to read about Gavrilo Princip, who "killed 20 million people......with just one bullet." Princip shot Archduke Frank Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary, which triggered World War 1 (in which 20 million died.) Reading about this certainly makes young readers think about actions and consequences and how a pivotal event can set in motion a chain of other events. Would the war have broken out anyway, if Princip hadn't shot the Archduke? It's an interesting question. Many people think that if Princip's act hadn't triggered war, something else would.

      Given that this book covers 50 of history's foulest characters in just 80 pages, you will appreciate that the information about each character is bound to be sketchy. However, I feel Terry Deary does very well to create an impression of each character in so few words. There is so much you could say about someone like Lenin, for instance, if you had the time and space to do it, but when you are dealing with 49 other characters from history, you know you're going to have to be very selective. You have to say just enough to bring that character to life in the 2 pages they feature in and I think Terry Deary manages that very well. Hopefully, from reading these introductions, children will find a character that really captures their interest and this may spur them on to read other books.

      I must admit, I don't entirely agree with the selection process for the characters in this book. Queen Victoria, for instance. She would not spring immediately to mind if I was asked to name one of the foulest people of all time. Given that Stalin only gets a brief mention and Hitler isn't on the list, it seems a slightly odd choice to find her in there. Apart from growing quite fat and reigning too long, it's hard to see how Victoria makes it into the top 50.

      This is a well-written, engaging history book that I have no hesitation in recommending for those who like their history with the nasty details left in. Children who read this book are bound to want to talk about what they have learned and to share some of the blood-thirsty true stories with their friends. Talking about what you have learned is a great way to consolidate learning and I think it can give children a big dose of confidence if they pass on something they have learned and see their friend or teacher react with shock or fascination. Who's Horrible in History is available from Amazon sellers for a mere £1.20 plus post and packaging.

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